Breaking Out 2021: Beyond the Blue Ridge

On Monday, the 26th of April, I broke camp at the Indian Heritage RV Park in mid morning. It was sunny and not as cold as the day before. As I started into the hills away from Martinsville, the headwinds from the west were moderate, but steady. I needed my lowest gear twice, an augury of what lay ahead.

IMG_20210426_134405The farm plots in Patrick County were smaller, with more deep, green woods. Several times I thought I saw the Blue Ridge with its distinctive tinge, but I was not sure until the town of Stuart was too close for it to be anything else.

IMG_20210426_174333This is Trump country, and the Lost Cause is still being fought here. At Hopkins Lumber, I saw the first Trump 2024 flag, whilst all the other Trump advertising was left over from 2020. The entire town of Taylorsville was renamed Stuart in 1884 in honour of J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederate General who was born in Patrick County. That renaming occurred as the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow era got into full swing. In Patrick County also, US-58 was renamed JEB Stuart Highway. The Courthouse features a statue of the famous general, and it is unlikely to come down any time soon.

IMG_20210426_174411The Virginian Motel provided affordable accommodations, but it only rated one star. Main Street had a collection of different restaurants, but only one, the Mexican El Ranchero, was open.

The next day, Tuesday, I awoke before dawn with varying levels of thumping basses coming from different units around me. By 07:30, the noise abated as the workers left for their jobs, so I got up. I redistributed the load on my bicycle, so that only 4.4 kg was on the front wheel. This should help with slow speeds when climbing.

This would be a special day, because I climbed to Meadows of Dan, 25 km from Stuart, but 1,100 m of elevation at the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was in my lowest gear for most of the climb, including a single uphill stretch five kilometres long to Lover’s Leap overlook. There, I encountered a broken-down truck with a load of lumber, parked with its engine cover up. The engine had blown something and lost its coolant. The driver was comfortably waiting in his cab for the repair vehicle to arrive.

IMG_20210427_140303After taking some photos of the stunning panorama looking north along the east face of the Blue Ridge, I prepared to ride to Meadows of Dan. A woman on a motorcycle was taking pictures about twenty metres away. I walked toward her as she mounted to drive away, and I was afraid that she would drive off. She stopped, parked again, and took my picture before resuming her trip. Such has been the generosity of strangers on this trip.

IMG_20210427_140652The cool air was a blessing on a very sunny day. In spite of the difficulty of the climb, I did not sweat up my clothes.

Meadows of Dan boasted a delicatessen, and the two convenience stores had fresh produce. I took a Reuben sandwich, a seafood salad, and a fried apple pie to the Meadows of Dan Campground. There were two RV’s parked at the very top of the hill, but I was the only occupant of the main campground. I chose a remote spot in the tent area. The water was not running, but there was water at the bathhouse, so I was not inconvenienced.

IMG_20210427_102748On the subject of water, I have enjoyed pure water everywhere, thanks to the Steri-pen that Daniel wanted for his trip to Colombia. My son would not need it after that trip, so I bought it and he returned it to me in time for this trip. The UV light kills microorganisms in the water, which might otherwise cause the turistas or serious gastrointestinal illnesses. Very handy and portable.

IMG_20210427_172948VA 614 ran next to the Blue Ridge Parkway near the campground. In the evening it was noisy with commuters returning home, but settled out that night. As I expected, the warm day turned into a cool evening at altitude. I had expected to take three or four hours to make the climb, but I was rolling for only 2.5 hours.

On Wednesday, the 28th, the sun shone brightly in between passing clouds, and the southwest winds were much like the day before. I learned that the New River Valley is a mess of sharp ridges between the Appalachians and the Blue Ridge. I had expected more of a plateau. Every point in the valley sits between 700 and 850 metres above sea level, and it felt like I covered that 150 m every two kilometres. Only two ascents were more than one kilometre, but I had to rest at the top of each one.

IMG_20210427_142213During the day, I realized that I was altitude-challenged. I had read about “mountain sickness” and anoxia, and about the performance issues for athletes performing at 6000 metres in places like Denver, Colorado. Yesterday, I had climbed from the flatlands to 3000 metres in one day, and I could feel the reduction in oxygen available to me. That explained my need to walk even short climbs. I hoped that I could acclimate in a few days, but it would not comfortable until I did.

I treated myself to a long lunch at Earl’s Diner on the east side of Galax. The name evinces images of simple Southern cooking with no vegetables, and, indeed, the place looked the part. Most of the customers were eating burgers in various forms, but I was pleased to have two fillets of flounder and a green salad.

IMG_20210429_112149Much restored, I climbed into Galax and took Cliffside Drive (aptly named) down to the New River Trail Ranger Station. It was closed, but the Chief Ranger was coming around from the back of the building to get in his truck. He opened up the station and signed me in. The campground was actually 3 km up the trail. It was primitive camping with comfort. No motor vehicle access, and an outhouse with no running water or electricity, but the sites were clean. Each had a fire ring and a picnic table.

I planned to set up my tent and go back into town to find groceries, because I had not seen a single store since Meadows of Dan. The couple next door were struggling to erect their six-man tent as well as a canopy over the picnic table. I helped them with the task, while they told me how far the nearest grocery store was. They also invited me to have supper and breakfast with them.

Jim and Diane Pearson were delighted to have help and company. They were visiting from Tennessee, and planned to stay for four days, riding their e-bikes up and down the trail. The food was simple, but filling: chili and hot dogs. I turned down desserts and drinks after supper. We retired to our respective tents and slept soundly to the gentle rushing noise of the New River.

I had had no cell service since leaving Meadows of Dan, even in town. Apparently AT&T has not negotiated contracts with Verizon and the competition in this neck of the woods. Going into my second day without service, I began to understand the concern and frustration of those who are agitating for affordable, pervasive internet access in rural areas. I would spend large portions of the next few days without a cell signal.

During the night it rained between 03:30 and 04:00. It made a pleasant sound, which lulled me back to sleep.

Thursday morning, the 29th, I realized that I had hung the food bag and the mess kit bag on the poles to dissuade animal scroungers, so they had been rained on. But the contents were not wet and both my tent and the bags dried while Jim and Diane fixed a breakfast of sausage, eggs, and potatoes.

IMG_20210429_172422Thus fortified, I set out under cloudy skies, but the sun came out and the temperature climbed as I rolled down the New River Trail to the west end of Galax. Still no cell service, so I was forced to ride back up the hill on US-58 to downtown Galax, where I found Wi-Fi at a Food City supermarket with a Starbucks. I booked a room at the America’s Best Value Inn in Independence because it had Wi-Fi. Independence was only 35 km down the road, and the only serious climb was the last little bit into the hotel driveway.

IMG_20210429_182316This was the best ABVI facility that I had ever seen. I know that each is owned and operated independently, but I could have settled down to live in this one. Independence, Virginia, also surprised me by having a state-of-the-art bike path separated from US-58 through town. It made the climb into town much easier and more pleasant.

So much work had piled up, that it was 01:30 by the time I finally turned in for the night. The weather forecast called for strong headwinds, but I had no idea how bad it could be.

Friday, the 30th, was arguably the most difficult ride of the tour so far. The forecast strong winds turned out to be gale force as I pushed my way out of Independence. Knowing that there was no cell service in this part of Virginia and North Carolina, I had used the Warmshowers app on the Wi-Fi in the hotel to describe my itinerary to my hosts, but I still had to get there.

After 10 km, I could not ride at all. Even going downhill, the winds were so strong that I had to brake to avoid being blown over, and walking up hill, I could barely push the bike. I stopped and held out my thumb. This was not the time for pride.

Four pickup trucks went by, then a Ford F-150 pulled into the driveway beyond where I was standing on the other side of the road. As I pushed my load toward the truck, the driver got out and opened the bed. Inside was a custom-rigged two-by-four with bicycle quick-release mounts screwed into it.

“I’m a cyclist, too,” he said. “I just couldn’t leave you on the side of the road like that.” We loaded the bike with panniers into the truck.

As he drove, he explained that he did charity rides, because he and his wife had lost their eldest son to cancer. Over the nine years that he had organized Brett’s Ride in Hickory NC, they had donated $1.2 million to cancer research. The connection to my old home of Charlottesville was strong: Brett had been an undergraduate there, his brother had graduated from the Engineering School, and his mother’s best friend lived in Charlottesville.

By the time they left me by the side of the road in Mouth of Wilson, the wind had abated somewhat. I was a little less than halfway to my destination, so if I rode and walked, I could still make it by sundown. US-58 became two lanes, and at Volney, there were signs for large trucks to get off US-58 and take VA-16 to Interstate 81.

While I was eating lunch (seafood special; I had the catfish), my host, Steve Panella, joined me at the table. He was on his way to a ride in Floyd, Virginia, and guessed correctly that the only place I could stop for lunch would be the Corner Market in Volney. We chatted until he had to leave. I finished my lunch and took the turn onto US-58.

It was immediately obvious why trucks were restricted from the section of US-58.

“You will see why it gave US-58 the moniker ‘the Crooked Road’,” said Steve. He was right.

IMG_20210430_152951The wind picked up again, but I was not discouraged, as I pushed my bike up each climb and coasted carefully down the switchbacks on the other side. Meanwhile, the winds on Mount Rogers and at Grayson Highlands State Park (where I had originally planned to spend the night) were blowing at a steady 55 MPH (that not gusting, folks, that’s steady!).

When I was 16 km (10 miles) from my host’s home just over the line in North Carolina, a green Subaru Forester passed me and pulled over ahead of me. A woman with short hair and a no-nonsense face got out and opened the back.

It was Tanya Panella, Steve’s wife, and my host for the weekend.

“I’m taking you home.”

“I wrote that I could make it by sundown, even walking.”

“Sundown is at eight-thirty. Let’s get you in.”

We unloaded the panniers, slipped the bike in, and drove to her place in the Highlands of North Carolina. When I saw the steep, gravel-strewn road that led to their farm, I was glad of the lift.

IMG_20210502_111528IMG_20210502_111818Steve and Tanya have a wonderful division of interests, in which they support each other. Steve rides gravel on his bike with a growing list of friends (all guys) who gather on weekends for challenging rides. Tanya cares for her horses, mules (currently one each), assorted chickens and roosters of different breeds, two dogs and a couple of cats. Eight years ago, they settled in the Highlands of North Carolina, where they built a barn with their apartment above it, and a guest room next to the stable in the barn. I had my own space (Steve’s cave, normally). The farm was so remote that the silence and darkness were absolute at night.

It rains almost every day here, though the weather took a break while I visited.

“That’s why the Scots settled here. It reminded them of home,” Tanya said. Indeed, I felt myself surrounded by the world that Diana Gabaldon described in detail in her Outlander series. Those of you who may have enjoyed the TV series should probably read the books and experience what happens after Jamie and Claire wash up on the shores of Georgia. They come to where I was spending the weekend and establish Fraser’s Ridge.

Though there was no cell service on their ridge, the Panella’s did have a landline, and a strong, fast Wi-Fi connection. I was able to catch up all the correspondence I needed to, and to plan out the rest of my ride to the Cumberland Gap.

Saturday was devoted to laundry and rearranging the contents of my panniers. I identified two kilos of stuff that I could ship to Daniel, which I was not going to use until I passed through Charlottesville.

I had reached the two-thirds point of the trip. This is when the inspiration flags, and the will to persevere to the end withers. From a practical point of view, I noted that I could not get back to Norfolk by the middle of May (when the mail-holding expired) and also ride out to the Cumberland Gap. Rather than despair, I wrote to my friend, Dave Truslow, to ask if he could pick me up when I got within range of his house in Waynesboro. He said yes, and that simple gesture would catch up all the days I lost with the weather and the hill-climbing.

Steve and Tanya have enjoyed interesting lives: she as a social worker, he as a Navy meteorologist on a research program. Our conversations over the dinner table ranged far and wide, and I think we enjoyed talking with a similarly minded people in this part of the world.

IMG_20210502_114330Sunday morning, the 2nd of May, I set out for what would be the most fun riding so far: a 2000-foot descent in 33 km to Damascus on the Virginia Creeper Trail. To start, I blew out of North Carolina at 55 km/hr into Virginia to the White Top station of the trail, in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The Virginia Creeper is an original project of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) and part of the National Rail-Trail Network. The locals whom I asked told me it was paved, but they clearly did not understand the word “paved” or what “asphalt” was. It was a gravel trail, and, while rutted, it was well packed enough for me to speed past the tourists, families, dogs, and Cub Scouts packs at a blazing 28 km/hr all the way to Damascus. There was a gentle climb from Damascus to Abingdon, where I had booked a motel to wait out the threatened thunderstorms on Monday.

IMG_20210502_113916This day was a lesson in “paying it forward.” After enjoying the selfless hospitality of the Panellas for a whole weekend (food, laundry, a comfortable bed, good company, and conversation), what could I do?

I was streaking down the Creeper Trail when I came upon a couple walking their bikes. Krista had a flat tyre on her mountain bike. I parked my bike, whipped out the blue stuff sack with my tools and installed a new inner tube on her front wheel. It was the wrong size, but it inflated and filled out her fat tyre. As I worked, we chatted. They were from Winston-Salem, so they had to drive more than two hours after they returned to Damascus. Bernie tried to press a twenty-dollar bill on me, but I asked him to “pay it forward” instead.

“Consider me a Bedouin in the desert,” I said. “Hospitality is expected, not paid for.”

IMG_20210502_114902He accepted that and promised to get the right-sized inner tube when they returned to North Carolina. Their friends gathered while I worked on the wheel.

After inflating the tyre with my handy little pump, I disappeared in a cloud of dust leaving a half-dozen grateful North Carolinians and potential book sales.

IMG_20210502_131134Paying it forward never felt so good. Their thank-you emails after they got home didn’t hurt, either.

I stopped at the Kroger supermarket in Abingdon to pick up food for supper and the next day, then checked into the Super 8 Motel.

On Monday, the 3rd of May, I reorganized a little to make sure that I had identified everything that I wanted to ship. At the Post Office, I shipped 2.1 kg of odds and ends that I would not need until Charlottesville. That may not sound like a lot, but it was the equivalent of having empty front panniers. By keeping the front panniers, I could carry my laptop with nothing pressing on it and have room for groceries along the way. One thing I have learned about this neck of the woods: grocery stores are few and far apart, and everyone assumes you are driving a motor vehicle. The campgrounds, in particular, are far from places to buy food.

It was my lucky day to make it back to the motel before the skies opened. I reviewed and published the blog for this week while the front blew over (https://jthine.com/2021/05/08/purple-heart/).

IMG_20210504_144509On Tuesday, the 4th, the rain started 10 km west of Abingdon. With a high of only 18ºC, I was glad to have the Arc’teryx rain jacket. Stopping for lunch at the Li’l Country Deli let a particularly nasty squall pass. At the Highland Regional Airport, I learned that the elevation was about 300 m. I found a Food City supermarket only 3 km from the Travel Inn.

During the day, US-11/19 had a center lane for the whole trip, so passing me did not pose a problem. As many of you know, road rage worries me more than the traffic itself. So far, US-58 has been a safe highway in this respect: when there have been no shoulders, there have been long sight-lines and an extra lane to pass. Bristol and Abingdon were only 27 km apart, or it would have felt like a miserable day. Instead, the landmarks moved quickly, and I did not wear out on hills. I wondered if I were acclimating to the altitude at last.

After settling into the Travel Inn in Bristol, I called the Natural Bridge State Park. The Duty Ranger assured me that there was plenty of room in the “primitive camping” area. The Warmshowers host for the next day was ready, too.

Wednesday, the 5th, I had hopes that the rain might hold off. My shoes and laundry were still not entirely dry. However, the rain started before I left, and the high was only 18º.

Google Maps took me into Tennessee and back up to Weber City, Virginia, at the state line. Although the elevation profile described the ride as “mostly flat”, that did not include the last four kilometres inside the Natural Tunnel State Park itself. As miserable as the weather had been, I opted to camp first, and do the paperwork the next morning.

IMG_20210505_201254In my humble opinion, this beautiful state park is NOT recommended for bicycle tourists. The bike/hike camping is at the end of a very long series of 10-14% hills. While there should be electricity and water at the campground, the spigot was locked, and there was no power to the outlets at the common picnic area. The rangers explained that the lack of water was the result of a bureaucratic fuss with the VDH, the Virginia Department of Health, because there was one spigot for five campsites. The situation forced all the campers to walk up the hill to the one spigot at the entrance; how that satisfied the VDH rules beats me.

IMG_20210505_161118It had been the longest day yet, by less than one kilometre, but the seventy-kilometre day from Norfolk to Franklin had been all flat! This day was also remarkable for rolling over 43,000 km on the odometer.

I slept like a rock for ten hours. Forest sounds (mostly owls) died down as I dozed off, but pickup trucks with loud custom exhausts roared along US-58 at 02:00 and again at dawn.

Come back in two weeks for the conclusion of this ride from one end of Virginia to the other. Meanwhile, next week, enjoy another short story from Hilda’s youth on my author’s blog.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

JT

3 thoughts on “Breaking Out 2021: Beyond the Blue Ridge

  1. Pingback: Breaking Out 2021: Beyond the Blue Ridge: first interstate ride — The Freewheeling Freelancer | Ups Downs Family History

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